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The ecology of social change

Last week’s Archdruid Report post was a bit of a departure from this blog’s normal fare, but it was a departure with a purpose. By turning a spotlight on the way that so many Americans have projected what amounts to a paranoid mythology of incarnate evil onto whichever side of the political spectrum they don’t inhabit, I hoped to begin a conversation about the immense gap between expectation and reality that hamstrings most attempts at constructive social change, in America as elsewhere.

I have to say that the true believers in the mythology responded to their cue with a great deal of enthusiasm. I received a bumper crop of angry screeds assailing me, in lively and in some cases unprintable language, for suggesting that people should be judged by their actions rather than the intentions imputed to them by their most bitter enemies. My favorite among these comments rounded off a thumping denunciation by demanding that I resign at once from my position as archdruid. The author never quite got around to explaining why acceptance of his extremist ideology should be so vital a part of my job description, so I didn’t take his advice.

Now it so happens that I spent much of the weekend reading Carl Jung’s memorably weird autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections, and so it was hard to miss the relevance of Jung’s concept of shadow projection to all this. The shadow is Jung’s name for the mental dumpster into which individuals and societies stuff the aspects of themselves they dare not face; when the dumpster gets too full, one refuge from self-knowledge lies in tipping its contents onto someone else, and claiming that the objectionable qualities belong to the scapegoat rather than oneself.

It needs to be recognized in this context that it’s only in modern morality plays that scapegoats are invariably virtuous and innocent. In the real world, it often happens that the person targeted has his own faults, sometimes grievous ones, and that these are routinely used to justify whatever other accusations are heaped on him. This process seems universal among human beings – I very much doubt any of us are entirely free of the habit of seeing our own worst qualities in the people we dislike – but its intensity varies between individuals, cultures, and historical periods, and Jung is surely right to point out that it reaches peaks when an individual or a society get caught in the gap between what the world is assumed to be and what it actually is.

Survey any of the major historic outbreaks of mass scapegoating and violence and you’ll find it in a context where socially acceptable belief systems failed to keep up with a changing world. Behind the European witch hunts, for example, lay the collapse of late medieval worldviews that hardened into dogma as they were cracking apart at the seams, just as the fatal mismatch between German fantasies of global dominion and Germany’s actual status as a little country without oil reserves or defensible borders in an age of sprawling petroleum-fueled empires played a major role in setting the stage for its catastrophic 20th-century history.

What makes the situation in contemporary America interesting, from this perspective, is the way that its mainstream culture and its self-described alternative countercultures have fallen into versions of the same double-bind. Many posts here, and of course quite a bit of excellent analysis by other authors, have outlined the way that the narratives of the cultural mainstream in contemporary America built a worldview of perpetual progress and limitless abundance on the temporary foundation of cheap fossil fuels, and have been made hopelessly irrelevant by the end of the petroleum age. Less often discussed and, I believe, less often noticed is the way that most current proposals meant to replace the current order of society with a better one also rest on beliefs about the world that hold up very poorly in the face of experience.

The mismatch here can best be traced along a specific fault line dividing future visions from present realities. Page through any recent proposal for substantive social change and odds are that the better world it envisions is usually, at least in theory, better in terms of every variable its authors consider relevant. There are rarely any tradeoffs, or any sense of the bitter choices that so often constrain the decisions of real societies in the real world; the inhabitants of the better future do not have to choose between peace and freedom, between feeding the hungry and protecting the environment, or indeed between any two values; given the right social system, the implication seems to be, you can have it all.

Consider the ways in which these same proposals hope to bring about the change they envision and the same fracture opens up. Whether they put their faith in organization, political action and the like, or expect some deus ex machina, whether cataclysmic or mystical, to sweep away the old order of things and leave the field clear for the future to be born, nearly all of them assume that the only obstacles to a Utopian society, the only factors that force hard choices on people, are the institutions, individuals, or attitudes governing today’s world.

These curious habits of thought unfold from a single assumption: that human choices and only human choices place limits on the perfection of human society. Back of this assumption lies the prestige of the Enlightenment cult of reason, with its conviction that building a better social mousetrap will cause the world to beat a path to your Utopian door. Yet it’s hard to think of an assumption that has been more thoroughly disproved by experience. Consistently, the more Utopian a new society has appeared on paper, the more disastrous it has turned out to be in practice. Proponents of social change tend to insist that their new society will be different, but at this point in history, that insistence is starting to wear very thin.

The crucial flaw in most of today’s ideas about social change, then, may just be that – even when they wrap themselves in environmental slogans – they are rooted in a fundamental denial of ecology. Imagine for a moment that instead of a human society, we are talking about some other ecosystem composed of living things. That ecosystem has evolved over many generations in relationship to other systems, animate and inanimate, and it maintains itself by complex balances that challenge any attempt at analysis. What happens when human beings set out to reengineer the ecosystem to suit their own preferences, especially if they assume as a matter of course that their new ecosystem will necessarily be stable, balanced, and healthy if it is pleasing to them?

Of course we don’t have to speculate about the answer; the catastrophic results of human mismanagement of natural ecosystems are far too well documented. Our species has learned the hard way, over and over again, that tinkering with an ecosystem needs to be done with exquisite care. It can be done – traditional societies all over the world have evolved ways of shaping their environments for human benefit that still maintain the overall integrity of the ecosystem, and today’s permaculturists and students of appropriate technology are moving in the same direction – but it can only be done in small steps, with a great deal of knowledge and an even greater supply of patience.

I am coming to suspect that exactly the same thing is true of human societies. The discipline of human ecology has shown that the same principles that shape the environmental relationships of other species and other communities also apply to our species and our communities. Like these other living things, human beings depend for their survival on natural cycles, and are subject to natural limits. Like the communities of other living things, human communities – from villages to nations – are shaped by their history, adapt to their environments, face hard choices between competing goods, and respond homeostatically in order to counter movements toward disruptive change.

Thus social change is possible, just as environmental change is possible, but it may need to be pursued in a very different spirit from the one that motivates the Utopian ideologies of the present and the recent past. If we are to take human ecology seriously, it seems to me, it’s time to start trying to understand the ecological conditions – the relationships linking human beings to each other, to other living things, and to inanimate nature – that foster desirable social changes. Then, in the manner of tribal gardeners carefully replacing noxious plants with edible ones, those who desire those changes might work to bring about those conditions, keeping an eye on the results and letting experience rather than ideology guide their efforts.

As far as I know, the art of applied human ecology or social ecotechnics suggested here exists only in the most embryonic form, and no little effort will be needed even to begin the process of evolving it. Still, the attempt to better society by remaking it according to some ideological model or other has failed so consistently that it’s high time to try something else.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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